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The Truth About Writing In School

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

Three Ways Writing Teachers are Accidentally Stunting their Students' Growth


I'm going to straight to the heart of the matter with this piece: if we fail to teach secondary students how to expand their writing beyond the constraints of formulas and teacher-determined structures, they will continue to write at a basic, elementary level year, after year, after year.

I find it somewhat ironic that what we call Language Arts is often approached by many teachers as a science: follow this formula, this recipe, this 3-step-equation, and a well-written, thoughtful response ye shall have. Unfortunately, the truth couldn't be farther from these illogical claims.

Somewhere along the line, teachers (not writers) determined several "tried and true" organizational structures that are widely accepted in classrooms at nearly every grade level. I look for research, I look for reasoning, I look for it in writing: Why are we teaching these structures? The answers only exist in teacher resources, not in writing resources, and that leads me to believe we, the teachers, created this on accident and now are stuck with a capital S.

There are several detrimental structures in particular that I'm attacking:

  • The 5 sentence paragraph

  • Constructed Response Acronyms (all of them)

  • The 5 paragraph essay

If I had time or energy, I'd also go after plot diagrams (why???) and 3-pronged thesis statements, but I'll save those for another day.


The 5 Sentence Paragraph: Debunked

If I had a nickel for many times I've heard my students ask, "How many sentences does this have to be?" well, I'd have a whole lot of nickels. Students want to know what's expected of them, what the requirements are, and honestly at times--how much effort is required. They're not being rude; they're being total humans. As adult humans, we do the same in our homes, families, and definitely our schools. Still, this "How much?" question is particularly irking to English teachers who pride ourselves on devoting years of our lives luring students to elaborate, add, share, detail. Unlike our content counterparts, expanding your ideas in the ELA classroom is not only accepted but encouraged.

So though we probably all tell our students, "It needs to be as long as it needs to be," we have also done a fantastic job of then giving our students outlines and acronyms that essentially require...3-5 sentences. I think our kiddos are believing our actions more than our words.

The typical 5 sentence paragraph structure I'm referring to is:

  • Topic Sentence

  • Detail

  • Detail

  • Detail

  • Concluding Sentence

Oy vey.

Why? Why are we doing this? Why are we asking our students to write like this? Open another tab and find an article or another blog post. Anything to read that's written in paragraphs. Search up published essays. Pick up a nonfiction book, magazine, newsletter. Where are all the published paragraphs that follow this structure? Where are they? I can't find them. I tried. Honestly I did.

More sophisticated, elaborative paragraphs are not structured in this way. They are structured in various formats that mirror types of details and text structures. What do I mean by this? I recommend Smekens' Education 20 Ways to Add Details and Build Strong Writing Paragraph by Paragraph as resources.

In many of our standardized reading tests, students are asked to read a passage and then evaluate the purpose of various sentences, phrases, and paragraphs to the overall meaning of the text. They are being asked to read like writers and identify what style of paragraph they have read. BUT: we've typically only taught them the basic pattern (year, after year, after year) and so they don't know how to read it like a writer.

Paragraphs can be written in any of the following formats (and this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Description

  • Cause/Effect

  • Compare/Contrast

  • Narrative

  • Definition

  • Chronological/Sequential

  • Problem/Solution

  • Fact/Opinion

  • Question/Answer

  • Topic/Details

Any of these. All of these. And paragraphs can also NOT be written in these structures but rather in multiple, connecting sentences that simply build on one another.

That. What you read above. That's a paragraph. Didn't follow a structure at all. See. I just did it again. No structure to this.

You can mix and match these styles as details within paragraphs, too!

Watch. Out.

Why does this matter? Why should we teachers of writing care?

We see student writing that seems shallow, ill-developed, weak, lacking, underdeveloped. We say, "add more details" or "tell me more" but students literally do not know what that means because we aren't showing them or letting them do it.

How do you elaborate your ideas? You add narration, personal connection, definitions, comparisons, sequence, facts, opinions, evidence, descriptions, etc.

Details don't happen by magic, not do they happen in restrained paragraph structures. Language arts, not Language science.


Constructed Response Acronyms: Debunked!

Next up: The constructed response acronym. I love and hate this. I really, really do. There is a really normal reason as to why we continually teach acronyms for writing in response to reading: It's what we find online. Google, "How to teach constructed response" and then tell me I'm wrong. How many acronyms can you find to teach this? I did this just now and counted 8 before I scrolled.

In my previous post, "The Problem with Acronyms in Response to Reading" I share five reasons why acronyms are not actually helping/teaching students to analyze what they've read, therefore, they cannot write about what they've not critically thought about.

Here are my five reasons that the acronym is stunting students' writing growth:

  1. Acronyms are a surface, comprehension tool

  2. Acronyms are too structured

  3. Acronyms are often not meeting criteria

  4. Acronyms create choppy, disjointed paragraphs

  5. Acronyms create various "languages" that students must learn

I'm curious to hear which (if any) of these resonate with you or your students' writing. Have you ever reflected on student writing samples and noted that student writing is lacking transitions or connections? Reasons #2 and 4. Every noticed that even though the instructions said: multiple pieces of evidence, your students included 1 piece? Reason #3. Ever argued over whether to use RACE, SASS, TEACH, Yes Ma'am, RAP, APE, and...? Reason #5.

This is a hugely huge hard one to swallow for many of us. I know. Without structure--we think they'll just write all kinds of randomness (because they do).

What I suggest, beyond the structure, is modeling, modeling, modeling. Show, don't tell. Use a document camera. Write as you think. Share what you see in reading. Model, model, model. Do mini-lessons on transition words that connect ideas. Do mini lessons on transition words that make comparisons. Do mini lessons, period!

And: We have to close read texts. We just have to. If I haven't thought critically about the text, I can't transfer those thoughts into writing. See my post on Explicit Reading Strategies in Any Classroom for the TOP 6 research based strategies (according to Visible Learning research) and to use the free strategies resource.


The 5 Paragraph Essay: Debunked!

Still with me? Last but not least, it's time we dethrone the beloved (and behated) five paragraph essay. Once again, I believe this structure was created by teachers, for students, but not by writers for writers. When I read anything that is published, very rarely (and not by intention) do I see five paragraphs. And if a piece happens to have five paragraphs, it most certainly does not follow an Intro-Reason 1, Reason 2, Reason 3, Conclusion format. No way. It's fake. It's fiction. It's not real. We made it up.

I knew from my own students that the five paragraph structure was stifling their abilities to actually elaborate and expand their ideas. Then, as I entered the role of secondary department head and I started observing other students' writing (6-12) and I saw year, after year, after year, our students being taught the exact same essay structure without their writing evolving or improving...I knew the issue was ours, not theirs. In search of an alternative to the teacher-created structure, I came across an old book of essays we'd once used for an AP Language course. In the table of contents I was taught more about writing than I had in all my years as a student (and teacher) of English. Essays, as it turns out, can be structured in the following formats:

  • Argument

  • Literary Analysis

  • Synthesis

  • Description

  • Cause/Effect

  • Compare/Contrast

  • Narrative

  • Definition

  • Chronological/Sequential

  • Problem/Solution

  • Question/Answer

  • Topic/Detail

  • Persuasive

Does this list look familiar? Of course it does! It's practically the same as the "types of paragraphs" list. What else? These are all TEXT STRUCTURES.

Text structures are we can organize (structure) essays. Yes. This is the truth. If we want our students to read writing like writers (to identify the purpose of paragraphs in informational texts) then we have to teach them writing like writers!

One big elephant in the room is that many teachers do not view themselves as writers. And I get it. There's no way you could convince me that I could teach Algebra, Geometry or geez Louise calculus. Not me, no way. And that's how many, many teachers who have to teach writing feel about writing. Like...they'll get it wrong and then forever hurt their students.

So, rather than get it wrong in the unknown, they choose a structure (that they think they should choose) and forever hurt their students. Because year, after year, after year, we are programming our students to write short, choppy, thoughtless, disconnected pieces. We aren't doing this on purpose, but we are the ones doing it.

But Good News! The solution is pretty simple: know better, do better. We need to push the conversations among ELA and writing teachers to actually explore ALL of the real structures or writing (including when not to use structures) and then show our students these examples. Which, they shouldn't be hard to find considering all published pieces include them.

Which of these practices are you currently using that you're willing to let go of? Which have you already debunked in your own classrooms? What have you done instead?

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